“This book is not about heroes. English Poetry is not yet fit to speak of them. Nor is it about the deeds or land, nor anything about glory, honour, dominion or poetry, except War.”
Who are we? Mankind and our so called civility? More importantly, will we be remembered as the poets of reality that we hope we are, or the animals that our wars reflect of us? We subdue our inhibitions, our instincts, our inner Moloch, our darkness from within, that every human is capable of unchaining, and unleashing upon his fellow man, but it’s this monster who consumes war and vengeance, who cannibalizes itself for its own prejudices, and self-pride, and that waits in darkness to be released again. For nearly seventy years the beast has been dormant, but there was a time when the silence ended, when the world went to war with itself, and mankind became the antithesis of its own humanity. Wilfred Owen, a World War I soldier recognized this darkness in himself, and the war he fought. Owen knew as a poet, he would not, and could not, weave a world of paradise, but instead, he would tell the truth, and tell of a time when Earth became Hell, and mankind its own worst enemy. His poems survive today as a warning to those who fall from innocence and who would kill under “the old lie, dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.”
Owen wouldn’t want us to start with the topic of the book, poetry. No from what I gather from reading “The Poetry of Wilfred Owens”, he would want us to start out with something horrific, something disturbing. Indeed Owen himself warns “ I am not concerned with Poetry... My subject is War, and the pity of War.” His service to his country (England) and World War I pales in comparison to the sacrifice he gave in sharing the ogrish side of war, ever knowing his own death was imminent. How could he not? So we shall start at the end, where Wilfred Owen died on 4 November 1918, one week before armistice. As the church bells rang in celebration, Owen’s mother alas received the word that his son had been killed in action.
It’s important to remember Owen was never forced into war, he chose to go to war, guilted into war by the headlines, the nationalism, and the propaganda of the time. Most importantly, guilted by his own mother and father, to prove his manhood. Indeed, I believe Owen believed when he volunteered to fight, that he truly believed it was sweet and right to die for one’s country. Had he chose not to fight, he would have likely been unable to face his family ever again, most importantly his mother, if he did not live up to the expectations of men. Men being both metaphorical, and literal, as his own father disapproved of his son’s aspirations for poetry, and perhaps “softer” side of life.
“Patting goodbye, doubtless they told the lad
He’d always show the Hun a brave man’s face;
Father would sooner him dead than in disgrace”
Indeed what makes Owen’s life so unique is that in 1917, in a letter, he stated he was against pacifism, and suggested he must obtain a “reputation for gallantry”. Owen entered the war to prove not only himself but also his opinions. War was the test of Wilfred Owen, a test which changed him in ways he would have never known. “Death before dishonour, that’s the style!” (S.I.W.)
In Le Christianisme, Owen describes the church of Christ being reduced to rubble as the Virgin Mary smiles on. Indeed many times, Owen eludes to the absence of God versus the horrors of mankind. I get the sense that he, like many, felt abandoned by God. As if God had seen the horrors of mankind, and decided to surrender his creation to its own demise. Owen finishes the poem with the line: “But a piece of Hell will batter her”. This aggressive stance towards war, God, and women becomes a whisper in Owen’s head as writes his poetry, and which heavily affects his body of work.
Owen managed not only to shock us with his dark poetry, but often make us smirk, even laugh at the dark comedy of his words. I have no doubt it’s intentional. Even if we smile, it’s all a ploy by Owen to make us understand how horrible, and unthinkable images of war can become acceptable, commonplace. How death and dismemberment seem almost normal in this new reality that soldiers become accustomed to every day. Owen shares with us:
The Last Laugh
The Bullets chirped-In vain, vain, vain!
Machine-guns chuckled,-Tut-tut! Tut-tut!
'My Love!' one moaned. Love-languid seemed his mood,
Till slowly lowered, his whole faced kissed the mud.
And the Bayonets' long teeth grinned;
Rabbles of Shells hooted and groaned;
And the Gas hissed.
We become a part of the war through Owen’s poetry. Indeed Owen tells us in the Preface that it was his duty to be truthful, to tell the story of war on Earth, a story never told, or should we say painted in a manner that Owen did, ever before. In that manner, we should be ashamed of ourselves for our capacity to become that which we declare we are not. War had to be imagined before it was manifested, and what damned creatures are we to have such thoughts of delight in it?
With each word Owen makes us feel the “tut-tut” of the gun, the choking gas, the blood leaking from the eyes. His observations of “him”, every soldier, not only is extended to those gasping for life, degloved of it, but those of the few who might survive. Indeed before his death, Owen was injured, placed in a military hospital, and it’s here that he refined his poetry. Here he could remark of “him”: 'Now he will never feel again how slim/Girls' waists are'. Indeed you get a sense that Owen was deeply saddened not only about the waste of human capital he witnessed around him, but also the self-realization that he was a part of a “machine” he could not escape, but that was slowly was eating away at both his body and life.
Perhaps Owen’s most spectacular triumph in his poetry was how he brought images of the process of dying and the condition of death to reality for the living. Images beyond what newspaper, or the few film-reels of the time do, in a way that as art often does, extracting an emotional response from those who witness it. Such is the case in his poem...
I saw his round mouth’s crimson deepen as it fell.
Like a sun, in his last deep hour;
Watched the magnificent recession of farewell,
Clouding, half gleam, half glower,
And a last splendor burn the heavens of his cheek.
And in his eyes
The cold stars lighting, very old and bleak
In different skies.
It’s difficult to imagine this shocking scene of a man in his last moments of life, as Owen looked on, curious, lovingly, with pen in hand, trying to convey what is transpiring into words- into beautiful words. To give the man’s life meaning, an immortality that I think by this time, Owen may have been questioning. Does such an afterlife truly exists outside of art?
We get a sense of Owen’s toying with the absurdness of it all in Apologia Pro Poemate Meo:
I, too, saw God through mud-
The mud that cracked on cheeks when wretches smiled.
Merry it was to laugh there-
Where death becomes absurd and life absurder.
To me it’s as if Owen is constantly teetering on agnosticism, never wishing to admit his distaste for the wars of both God and men. Having been raised by a very religious mother, Owen could only hint at the revelation of the world in conflict with his image of a merciful God:
I dreamed kind Jesus fouled the big guns….
…but God was vexed.
From reading Owens poetry, and this book, I can say I think Owen’s hubris began, and ended with his mother. It began with his upbringing, the religious ideas that she instilled, and then guilted him into war with. A philosophy that I suspect Owen interpreted as the only true path to his idea of heaven. Despite all the obvious horrors of war, and his truthful, yet often careful and strategic wordsmithing, Owen still could not let go of the English notion that his deeds, that his devotion to a greater cause, his sacrifice in this war would be the glory that brought about a “sweeter” dream “hereafter” (Has Your Soul Slipped).
Or the sweet murder
After long guard
Unto the martyr
Smiling at God.
Of course, this, his downfall of clinging to this concept of sacrifice perpetuated by his mother, eventually leads to Owen’s death, and that telegram arriving in his mother’s hands on Armistice day. It will always be a question of free-will versus destiny, but the puppeteer behind Wilfred Owen’s death, much like many of us, is not the misdeeds of a supernatural deity, but our own parents who imprint the foundations of their reality from their stories.
For God’s invincible spring love is made afraid…
…For the love of God seems dying.
As his poetry continues, Owen seems to be compartmentalizing the dichotomy of his hate towards war, with his love of God, in a similar fashion to British writers before him, by manifesting death into a living breathing enemy. No longer is it God’s failures of omnipotence, but, Owen must, if he is to continue to believe, come to a conclusion that there’s a reason why God isn’t silencing the rattle of the machine guns with a crack from the sky as he eludes to. Perhaps God doesn’t help, because he can’t? Perhaps the one rule in this universe, that even God must obey, is that he cannot intervene with Death?
The Next War
Out there, we’ve walked quite friendly up to death...
...We laughed, knowing better men would come,
And greater wars when each proud fighter brags
He wars on Death, for lives; not men for flags.
In Greater Love, we see another tactic, a description of a love which we might believe to be that towards a woman, but yet Owen’s only female influence was his mother, and considering he died at the age of twenty five we can assume Owen’s experience with women was minuscule. Indeed he likely had a distaste for marriage similar to his mother’s (Wilfred Owen), who felt the institution stifled her intellectual, and artistic capabilities. Owen paints the death of other soldiers as feminine, beautiful:
Red lips are not so red
As the stained stones kissed by the English dead....
...O love, your eyes lose lure
When I behold eyes blinded in my stead.
Your slender attitude
Trembles not exquisite like limbs knife-skewed
Rolling and rolling there
Where God seems not to care.
By the time he writes Strange Meeting, it’s clear Owen laments over his foolish and naive self. It’s here he recognizes in others, the person who he used to be, and who he has become. It’s a much more mature Owen.
The hopelessness, whatever hope is yours was my hope also;
For the first time, Owen sees himself through the eyes of others; and as if to foreshadow his own death in his poem about enemies, who if not for the horrors of war might be friends:
I am the enemy you killed my friend.
Owen progresses as both a poet and a young man as his writing matures. Just as he becomes more brave on the battlefield, the war fought in ink and paper gained a similar gumption. In The Young Soldier he uses the word murder twice. It’s no longer happenstance of God, or the misdeeds of men, or the personification of Death who kills, unintentionally, or indirectly, but he has elevated the extinguishing of life to murder. Malicious, intentful, even barbaric death “smiling at heaven” as it wanes “on a boy’s murdered mouth”.
As before, Owen’s life, and his poetry were dictated by his religious upbringings and his mother. In that sense, his story, like that of the Bible became about sacrifice. In To Eros he confirms this masked as the God of love.
“In that I loved you, Love, I worshipped you,
In that I worshipped well, I sacrificed all of most worth."
Indeed the only love Owen ever knew was that of his mother, so one can contemplate if not God that it was that Owen blasphemed, then likely it was “Eve”, his mother. Indeed in one of the first letters to his mother he writes “There is a fine heroic feeling about being in France....” (Wilfred Owen) but soon after grows impatient and angered, as he lays in a foxhole with a dead soldier for ten days waiting for England to send soldiers, “who might relieve us and will not” (Wilfred Owens).
As Wilfred Owen’s story approached its last few chapters, it was clear to him that he had found his calling. Not as the clergy he aspired to be earlier in life, or the soldier he had molded himself into for glory, but that of a poet. Something his father disliked adamantly, and it was by this point, Owen was determined to prove his success at. Owen understood that his purpose was to tell of the “pity of War,” rather than the glory. Indeed Wilfred Owen had come full circle. Short of his failure to run away from war, Owen was now an artists, ironically a pacifist, and at the very least, highly skeptical of religion.
Just prior to his death, Owens chastises those fortunate enough to not be soldiers: “Happy are men who yet before they are killed“.
On 4 November 1918, Wilfred Owens, the head of the 2nd Manchester, stepped quietly from the quiet fields surrounding the Sambre-Oise canal and began to cross the water. The Germans opened fired, “the machine guns chuckled --- tut! tut! tut!”. Owens was dead.
At journeys end, his mother wrote Rabindranath Tagore, who Owen admired as a poet, to tell him of the last words (Tagore’s) of her son on the day he left for war: ‘When I go from hence, let this be my parting word’.
Alas what really makes a tragedy a tragedy, is not the heroes downfall, not that Owen died, but that he should be immortalized in his own words by his mother, yet misquoted. ‘For his tombstone, she selected two lines from “The End”—”Shall life renew these bodies? Of a truth / All death will he annul, all tears assuage?”—but omitted the question mark at the close of the quotation. His grave thus memorializes a faith that he did not hold and ignores the doubt he expressed (Wilfred Owen)’.
Indeed, one must remember what Owen knew: that without someone to write down the poetry, to be “truthful”, that we are doomed not to be remembered for what we are, or what we aspire to be, but damned to be remembered as how others think we lived.
n.a. Wilfred Owen - Biography. Poetry Foundation. n.d. 29 Nov 2012
“Wilfred Owens”. Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc.
n.d. 2 Nov 2012.
Owens, Wilfred. “The Poetry of Wilfred Owens”. illLiterate, ed. 3. 4 Oct 2009